Sunday, December 1, 2019

Are Organic Foods Better Than Conventional Foods?

Not necessarily...

Firstly, there is ever growing evidence to dispel the myth that organic/non-conventional produce is superior to conventional produce in terms of health & nutrition; organic produce and conventional products have similar nutritional and health benefits.

Secondly, there is no control or regulation over the term "organic" which means that anyone or any company may use this term in their labelling and advertising without any justification.  In fact, the labelling & advertising terms on products are intended to manipulate and infer a better/superior status or product (unlike drugs/medication, labelling regulations are very lax and do very little to protect the consumer when products are classed as food, supplements, cosmetics or personal care products)

Thirdly, there are a variety of "certified organic" logos used by differing certification companies; each certification company/body have their own set of "standards".   These standards may greatly vary from one body to another.

Fourthly, many people are misled to believe that "organic" produce are free from pesticide/fungicides or additives, due to the misleading advertising/labelling and false claims!
Nothing is further from the truth.  All commercial produce utilise agents & additives to ensure their products survive, look, feel and taste their best.  Unfortunately, the truth is, organic produce end up using significantly more organic/natural pesticides/agents, simply because the agents used are far less effective than conventional agents.

Let's look at "nitrate-free" products such as ham.  These are labelled as nitrate-free, however, take a closer look at the ingredients... All products claiming to be "nitrate-free" will instead use celery powder/extract to preserve/cure their products.  Why celery?  Because celery is naturally high in nitrates!  (Nitrates are found in many vegetables, not just celery eg beets, lettuce, endive, parsley, rhubarb)

So, instead of using the standard regulated form of nitrate, where the amount of nitrate used is predictable, these companies are relying on the nitrate amount contained in each batch of celery powder/extract, which is not only unregulated, but as an unstandardised ingredient, the actual amount of nitrate delivered (as every batch/crop of celery will contain varying amounts of nitrate & other nutrients depending on the season/weather etc).
Not only is this "nitrate-free" product claim completely false and misleading, we can't even be certain there is adequate nitrates to safely preserve the product from pathogenic growth!   There is no regulated maximum safe level of celery powder /extract stipulated, so there is also a risk that excessive/toxic amounts of nitrates may also be used in these products!

Contrary to popular myth, organic/natural pesticides/agents/additives in NO WAY confer a safer nor healthier option.  This is a dangerous assumption.  In fact, there is growing evidence, that these natural alternatives, (particularly natural pesticides & fungicides) may cause potentially serious health risks.

Why aren't natural/organic substitutes safer?
One important factor, mentioned earlier, is that organic additives/pesticides/fungicides are much less effective on pathogens, and therefore less effective in inhibiting bacterial/mold/fungal growth, making these natural alternatives an inferior choice for pest/pathogen control and food preservation.  Such food produce will be more prone to bacteria, mold & fungal growth, causing serious health risks.

The other crucial fact quite simply is, the dose makes the poison!
No matter what the substance/ingredient is, no matter how good/healthy it may be for you...consuming too much (or high exposure) will cause it to become toxic/poisonous to our bodies.
Natural does NOT equate to healthy nor safe.  No matter what the substance/ingredient is or how it is sourced, the health risks and potential for toxicity is dependent on the amount/concentration used/consumed.  Substances are absorbed into the plant, so washing will only remove superficial contamination, at best.

Fourthly, it will shock many people to know that, the organic/non-conventional farming industry does not have regulations to minimise or limit the amount of organic pesticides/fungicides/additives used in their production process.  If the amount of additives and substances used are not regulated by safe limits, ANYTHING used can become a potential a health risk/toxic.

With traditional conventional farming & food production, there are regulations to restrict and limit the amount/concentration of additives/substances (eg fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides etc) used, thereby giving the public a safety margin.

In contrast, organic/non-conventional farming & food production practices are NOT regulated in the same way, and are not restricted or limited in how much, or how often these natural/organic additives can be used in the farming & production process.

Why is there no maximum limit for these non-conventional substances?
It is not because they are proven to be safe, but rather because there is a lack of data, research and outcome data, and a general lack of awareness and demand by the general public for this.
"Organic" farming & food production is relatively new on a commercial level, in comparison to conventional farming/food production methods.  Not only is the data and research for organic/natural methods is lacking, but the data which we should really be interested in (the medium to long-term health effects & outcomes of these ingredients) requires take many, many years to gather and analyse. There is, however, emerging data (particularly in europe) with some commonly used organic pesticide posing potentially serious health risks.

So, even when produce is "certified organic", the certification body's standards (whichever that may be) only regulates the use of certain substances/additives/ingredients to be used or excluded.
They do NOT limit how much of the natural/organic substance is used in production.
This means, unlike conventional farming methods which have a predetermined maximum limits to ensure safety in consumption, we do not know how much pesticides, fungicides etc is actually being used in organic farming produce.  The fact that natural/organic pesticides/fungicides are significantly inferior to their conventional counterparts, which leads to this very liberal use, with much higher concentration and usage rates!

Mother nature has an array of naturally poisonous plants and animals/venom.  If this isn't proof enough to discard the perpetual myth that natural is healthier or better, we should be reminded that many substances that are naturally occurring that are poisonous in our everyday foods (eg formaldehyde from pears, or cyanide from apple seeds) which can be safely consumed  in small/moderate amounts so our bodies are able to readily detoxify these naturally.   If you overload your body with anything, even water, it will become toxic.

Tips for making better food choices:

1.  Moderation is the key to health.  Any ingredient/substance used or consumed in its excess may be potentially harmful/toxic, no matter if it is naturally or synthetically derived.   The "excessive" amount varies for each food/ingredient/substance.  For example the excessive amount of cyanide greatly differs to the excessive amount of vitamin C.  Both are safe if consumed within their safe limits, and both may also have the potential to cause toxic side-effects if their respective limits are exceeded.

2.  The best food/produce are those that are intended to be consumed fresh with minimal storage/preservation, and produce that you know & understand what has gone into it, from planting to end product.

3.  Don't assume a natural ingredient/additive is better.  Understand the ingredients/agents employed, why they are used, and check that they are first, and foremost effective & reliable in performing their function within the production process, and that they have regulated recommended safe limits, with acceptable long-term safety data.   This is a must if you want convenient, commercial produce that can be stored.

I hope this has been helpful :)

Uyen Dinh
Consultant Pharmacist